Sibling rivalry can make a household feel like a warzone, with parents constantly having to throw themselves on emotional grenades to make it through the day. Why do kids torment each other in this way and what can be done about it?

One of the major causes of sibling rivalry is simple jealousy. Young children are very self-oriented, believing that the sun should rise and set according to their whims. When a child has to share the attention, resources and time of a parent, it can be perceived as a threat to his needs and desires. Each child is constantly comparing what is given to the other and will invariably feel that he has been cheated. There is no way to convince a child that he has been given an equal share of anything, so avoid trying. If a child asks you who you love best don’t respond with I love you all the same. Instead, speak about your individual love for each child. Children thrive on the perception that their parents see their unique qualities and can validate their experience of the world.

This need to be recognized as an individual with emotions and needs can be addressed in other ways as well. If a child cries out that he hates his sibling don’t correct him for being unkind. Rather, empathize with the frustration or anger he’s feeling. The more a child feels understood the less he will need to act out to convey his frustration. One exception is when a child is acting aggressively towards another. Whether it’s through physical or verbal aggression, do not attend immediately to the aggressor, but rather to the victim. The reason for this is to limit the attention paid to negative behaviors and therefore not reinforce the behaviors. For children, sometimes negative attention can be as gratifying as positive attention. At least they are getting attention.

Another way to help a child feel recognized and avoid the power struggle for attention is to schedule individual time with each sibling. It is hard for children to share and they do need to be made to feel special.

In summary, the best way to help defuse sibling rivalry is to make each child feel heard and seen as the individual that they are. After all, don’t we all want to be recognized as special?